A History of
First Baptist Church of Vandalia
You will find this history a bit different than most. Factual data gathered from a very limited supply of available documents forms its basis. A bit of oral history gathered from some older, long-time members adds a personal touch. The author's imagination supplies some hypothetical narration.
Come! Join this historical journey through the days of First Baptist.
Back in the 1890"s a small group of Baptists lived in this 75-year old thriving town, named Vandalia. These Baptists assembled as they could to pray and study the Bible. They looked around at this community and saw a thriving Catholic parish, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian congregations. These Christian brethren already occupied houses of worship.
I'm sure these Baptist's had their critics. They said, "We don't need another church. We just need to support the ones we have."
Those stalwart trailblazers probably responded, "But they're not Baptists."
Baptists held distinctive differences, that is for sure. Their interpretation of The Holy Bible ingrained in their consciences certain basic truths. Early Baptists strongly believed that a person should be old enough to make his own decision about accepting Christ before being baptized. Then, when individuals did accept Christ as Savior, they believed in putting them completely under the water in baptism. They also believed the government and the church should remain separate and not meddle in each other's business. Early Baptists also believed that each local congregation should govern itself by vote of the whole congregation, as each member sought God's will. they further held that each individual had the right and responsibility to study and interpret the Bible as they believed the Holy Spirit led them. They had no creeds to limit their interpretation. Why, they appeared so different, a lot of folk thought they were "mighty different".
That didn't stop the little gathering from organizing First Baptist Church on May 9, 1894. Six became the first members of the newborn church: Mr. and Mrs Quaint Beck, Mrs. Fred Richardson, Mrs. Alfred Overby, Mrs. Will Murray and Mrs. St. Clair. Rev. W.B. Lile, although not their pastor, presided over this organizational meeting.
The infant church called Rev. George F. Hilton as its first official pastor. He lived in Vandalia and gave himself to developing this small congregation and building a house of worship.
In those early days the church assembled in a variety of places, namely the National Bank Hall and the Court House. They continued to meet in member's homes for prayer meetings.
Just a short wile after the church organized, they invited the town to a revival meeting conducted by the Rev. B.B. Rodman, State Evangelist for Northern Baptists. They first started in the Dieckmann Hall, which seated about 125. Wow! What a revival that must have been! They outgrew the Dieckmann Hall and soon moved to the old G.A.R. Hall, which seated about 500. The eager crowds filled the G.A.R. Hall to capacity during that meeting. I suspect, these "Strange people called 'Baptists'" gave a few catfish indigestion splashing the waters of the Kaskaskia River baptizing forty new converts.
The need to learn and study weighed heavily on the minds of that early church. Soon after organizing in 1894 they organized a Sunday School, Baptist Young Peoples Union, Ladies Aid, the Sun-beams and a Missionary Society. So, from the very beginning, that little church realized their need to study the Bible, and learn how Baptists do things. They saw the need to discover ways to serve the community, teach children, and study and support mission needs around the world.
These self-respecting Baptists soon tired of meeting in borrowed or rented quarters. Someone probably said, "Let's build a building of our own!" Others responded, "Amen!" Soon they started raising money and seeking a location. Finally, they settled on the corner of Sixth and Johnson. "uncle Johnny" Walker donated the property for the church building.
In 1901, the thriving church dedicated a new brick building to the worship of God. Pastor J.B. Webb presided over that gala occasion. Can't you see those proud folks now? The dedication day arrived. Men groomed their finest horses, cleaned out their carriage, polished the leather harnesses, washed the mud off the wheels and put on their finest suit of clothes for the grand occasion.
The ladies cooked pots of food, swept out the new building and gave all the kids a bath. They did an extra big laundry so all the clothes would sparkle with Faultless Starch, and dress themselves and their offspring's in their finest apparel. I wonder if they drove up to the front of the church and stepped down into the dust or mud. Whichever, nothing could spoil this happy day. No inconvenience could distract them.
These elated Baptists enjoyed a new building for worship! I can see them all now. Inside the new sanctuary -- windows open wide -- this small group cooled themselves with fans from the local funeral parlor and sang "amazing Grace". A pump organ and piano amplified voices and spirits in praising God for His goodness.
In those early days, people were poor, but they gave of what they had. In contrast, we mentioned "Uncle Johhny" Walker. His obituary reads in part, "The early advantages of Mr. Walker when a boy were extremely limited, but by his own indefatigable industry he succeeded in acquiring considerable of this world's goods. When the Baptist church was organized in this city he was converted and became a member. Mr. Walker ever cherished the most grateful feeling towards and lively interest in its work and for a number of years prior to his death gave liberally to the support of his chosen church."
Because "Uncle Johhny" couldn't read or write, he marked his "x" on the checks. He made many x"s for the church throughout those early years. he died in 1903. Several direct descendants of Johnny Walker serve as members of First Baptist church today.
In those early years few people tithed. Few had much to tithe. Various Sunday School classes and the Ladies Aid earned money as they could to help finance the church. They quilted, tacked comforts, held bazaars, gave chicken dinners, oyster suppers, pink teas, ice cream socials, bake sales, rummage sales, etc. I'll bet "Uncle Johnny" Walker helped out. Sitting in on those groups, he would learn of needs get out his check book, and make his "x". Thank God for "Uncle Johnny" Walkers! Later the church voted not to earn money this way but to give the tithe as the Lord prospered them.
As a part of the fund raising, "The Ladies of the First Baptist Church" published a booklet entitled Baptist Cook Book, which sold for 25 cents. The greeting page states, "The book is worth double the money asked for it. The profits, if any, will be applied on the new Baptist church, corner of Sixth and Johnson Streets, to which we invite you all. Seats are free."
Advertisers in the Baptist Cook Book tell of suits made to order for $15.00 and up. Austin College in Effingham advertised, "$35.00 dollars Will Pay All Expenses for a Term of Ten Weeks." A dentist, named Rice, reminded people that, "Good cooking will give little pleasure without good teeth."
We don't know how much profit they earned through the sale of the Baptist Cook Book, or the many other projects, but we know the little congregation dedicated a debt-free building. The cost of that first brick building approached $4000.00 with an additional expense of about $2,500.00 for furnishings and equipment.
On October 7, 1896, tornado insurance was taken out in the amount of $1000.00 to protect the building under construction. $7.50 covered the premium. Johnny Walker was holding the mortgage during construction.
John Etcheson, age 12, watched with youthful curiosity at the dedication of the new building in 1900. He observed the leaders place a tin box 12 inches square and 4 1/2 inches deep in the cornerstone. In the box rested mementos of that date. Among the mementos were publications of Vandalia and St. Louis newspapers, church publications, a membership list, a song book and a New Testament.
Miss Jessie Craig may also have been present at the dedication and the razing.
"Miss Jessie", as she was fondly known, became director of the Sunday School's Primary Department (ages 6-8) in 1897. As a career teacher, she taught public school out of town for one year. Coming back to Vandalia, she resumed her old job and held it for a total of 69 years. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, " Miss Jessie" also served 35 years as Sunbeam (a children's mission study group) director, 10 years as treasurer of the Women's Missionary Society, and 40 years as church organist and pianist.
For the first 18 years, the new church affiliated with and obtained their study literature from the Northern Baptist Convention. After 1912, they associated with and obtained literature from the Southern Baptist Convention.
By the year 1910, the church praised the Lord for more than 100 members. As typical Baptists, when they got a good case of dedication to God, this group continued to grow.
Revivals played an important part in the growth of First Baptist. In 192, Rev. Sam Raborn was evangelist at First Baptist. A newspaper account indicates there were 97 additions to the church during the scheduled two weeks. Evangelist Raborn was asked to stay on another week because of the outstanding crowds and response to the gospel. He agreed to do so. We do not have an account of the results of that third week.
As they outgrew their building, somebody surely said, 'Let's enlarge the basement and the sanctuary and build an annex on the north end of our building."
Somebody else said, "Amen." they began to raise money and spirits, and dig out dirt. In fact, members of the church brought their shovels and wheel barrows and dug out most of the dirt by themselves.
Members laid many of the bricks and put wood door framing in place. Members volunteered their time to do electrical wiring. Pastor Sollie Sprague (1929-1940) smiled as the addition took shape.
In a building of their own, they enjoyed a baptistery inside. The catfish in the Kaskaskia breathed a sigh of relief. Every now and then the fish scampered to deeper water because a few converts didn't want baptism in a baptistery. They wanted the real thing -- in the river -- just like John the Baptist and Jesus.
When J. Paul Carleton became pastor in 1940, someone surely felt sorry for him and said, 'Let's build a house for the pastor to live in. " Someone else said, "Amen". The men got together and built the building while the women brought food and cleaned up messes. The children played under the shade of an elm tree in the back yard. Such busy-ness kept everybody out of trouble.
In 1945, Mrs. Veanna Clark, one of the wealthier members from Ramsey, willed two sections of land in Texas to First Baptist Church. From this inheritance the church still receives payments for oil and crops.
Toward the end of Rev. Carleton's tenure someone presumably said, "We need more Sunday School space so we can grow!" Others echoed, "Amen!" The congregation initiated plans to build a new educational building at the north end of the church building. Pastor A.L. Cox saw much of the building constructed before he resigned. Dr. Archie E. Brown presided over the dedication of the new three-story educational building in 1954.
First Baptist thrived during those days. Many converts splashed the baptistery waters. As part of this growing church, enthusiasm spread and growth was contagious.
In the early 1960's, someone said, "This old sanctuary is falling apart. We need to build a new one." Someone else said "amen." committees began their work. Architects presented plans. Money came in. The first floor of the educational building became a temporary place of worship.
People stood by nostalgically watching the old bell tower crash to the ground, making way for the new edifice. New bricks replaced old. An enlarged basement supplanted the old, and yes, a new baptistery succeeded the old. The catfish in the Kaskaskia continued their restful days. On October 6, 1968, the new , and present, sanctuary was dedicated as Dr. Archie Brown presided.
People began to settle back in their new comfort and take life easy. Then someone said, "We need to reach out and minister to our community." Someone else said , "Amen." Not long after, these "different Baptists" bought the building adjacent to the old Eakin Hotel and provided the "Way Inn" to minister to the youth of the church and community. They also bought the Eakin Hotel and renovated it into apartments for the elderly.
Since the church's beginning, a hundred new calendars have been placed on the walls of Vandalia homes. Weigh in your mind those thousands of Bible students learning in Sunday School. Thousands of children heard the gospel for the first time in Vacation Bible School. Contemplate thousands of converts entering baptistery water. Ponder numbers of young people giving themselves to special services in God's kingdom. Give thought to the to thousands of sick and hurting souls receiving comfort in their times of distress.
What of these critics a hundred years ago who said, "We've got enough churches already"? Who would agree with them? Well, Baptists wouldn't. We believe this ever-changing congregation ushered thousands into the kingdom of God, ministered to the needs of thousands of people in the midst of crises, and taught the Bible to countless children and adults seeking to find and please God.
That small group of six visionaries of one hundred years ago would rejoice to see this current congregation of 1,300 members. They would marvel as they viewed the present facilities. They would delight as they considered our ministries.
imagine with me, somewhere up in heaven those six occasionally greet a newcomer who says, "I'm from the First Baptist in Vandalia."
Can't you just hear Mrs. Fred Richardson saying to Bro. Quaint Beck, "Look what we started! Another soul in the kingdom of God. Hey! Sister Murray --Sister St. Clair. Look who's here! Another from First Baptist. Praise the Lord!!"
Standing on the threshold of the twenty-first century, we cannot but ask, "What of the next hundred years?" I trust it will be said a hundred times over, "Let's swerve the Lord Christ and minister to humanity and reach our world for the Kingdom of God!" Others will say, "Amen"! And we will all work together to that end, making changes to meet the needs of a rapidly changing society. We will also look to our history and protect our heritage where necessary.
Dale L. Rowley
Page created by: Jonette Eddy